I think perhaps it's only human nature to "romanticize" a culture you admire but don't truly know enough about. As a teenager I loved listening to Sean Connery speak, yet found it funny when women swooned over his James Bond's "sexy British accent". Um, that's not British. It's Scottish. I remember thinking, "Why can't they hear the difference?"
I've always loved accents. I don't know if it's the part of my brain which is creative and likes to write, or if I was lucky to be born with "a good ear"... hearing what some people miss. And what I hear stays with me. Hubby says he can always tell when the British Wives' group has been at the Center because I'll use "lovey" or "Brilliant!", phrases foreign in my daily speech. In that group is a lady from Ireland and two from Scotland. Interacting with the first one has me substituting "wee" for small for the rest of the day. My Scottish ladies and I have an interesting relationship due to my never ceasing curiosity. One is 90 years old, with a twinkle in her eye and a quick wit who likes to give hugs while telling me what a joy it is to see me. No one else greets me like that. The second, closer to my mother's age, was the one I sought out for a "translation". I was reading a poem written as the Scottish speak (oh don't even go there about whether that's an actual language, lest you start an argument amongst the locals). I asked for a definition of a few words I THOUGHT I understood, but wasn't sure. She began reading the poem aloud, stopping occasionally to offer an explanation she thought was needed. Yet as soon as she began to read, suddenly the words my eyes weren't sure of, my ears embraced. Hearing them made the meaning clear. Thrilled, I jumped in to offer a definition in mid sentence, making her pause and beam because I'd gotten it right. Finished, she gazed at me with a perplexed expression and asked,"You understood what I just read?"
I replied, "I do now. Because YOU read it. YOU made it come alive for me."
Thinking I was merely being polite, she questioned, "But you understood WHAT I was saying?" After my enthusiastic "Yes!", she shook her head and added, "I've been married to my husband (an American) for 20 years and his family still can't understand me. But you do. You actually do. How?"
"I listened," was my reply.
Yet the truth was deeper. I didn't tell her why. Maybe I should have. But how do you explain your love of her native tongue originated when you were ten and a kind Scotsman named Paul took the time to listen. To me.
In the South of my youth, children were raised to be quietly polite: speak when spoken to, otherwise let the adults talk while you listened and learned. I was a shy child, so only offering, "No Sir" or "Yes Ma'am" wasn't all that difficult. Shy children, however, learn a lot while listening to everyone else talk.
Raised a Baptist, the church we attended had an annual "Revival". For those not familiar, it was a chance for a preacher from another town to come in and, for a week, share with you familiar stories from the Bible. But since he wasn't the man you listened to every Sunday, often his telling of the tales made more of an impact. There was one young preacher the youth liked because he didn't talk over our heads to the adults, he spoke in a manner everyone understood. Plus he didn't yell or thump his Bible which frankly, is rather terrifying to a kid...especially one with a vivid imagination who has created a pretty horrifying mental image of the Devil already without outsider assistance.
The year I was ten, this visiting preacher brought a friend named Paul, from Scotland. For a little southern kid, the accent alone was a treat. To this day, I can still see him. Tall and broad shouldered, with hair dark as coal and the bluest eyes. His smile was genuine and his laugh as deeply joyful as his voice. He gave a lesson to our group prior to the main service, encouraging all of our questions, most of which had nothing to do with the lesson. There was something so warm and caring about him. As the last four of began to leave, he noted that my little wool tartan skirt made him a bit homesick. And that's when something odd happened to shy little me.
Amazed that an adult would admit such a thing I blurted out, "We learned to do the Highland Fling at school this year."
Most adults would've said "That's nice", before hurrying the child along so he wouldn't be late. Instead, without even looking at his watch, Paul sat back down and asked sincerely, "Would you show me?"
I should've been embarrassed and refused. That what shy kids do, after all. Funny what happens when an adult takes the time to make a request instead of a demand. As Paul began to whistle the very tune I'd learned to dance to, my feet began to move. He merrily clapped the beat, cheering me on and applauding when I was done, telling me it was the finest Highland Fling he'd ever seen. The other kids my age looked stunned. I should've been. But all I could hear was his softly uttered, "Thank you". Never have two words sounded so heartfelt or exotically loving.
The year was 1969 and things in the South were still racially charged. At that evening's service, three young military men from the local Base came into the service at the last minute. All were in uniform and quietly sat on the back row. The soldier in the middle was black. The good church people gasped, because churches were not integrated then. One of the Deacons asked the man to leave while another called the Police. I will never forget the eerie sight of blue lights flashing through the stained glass windows. Or the feeling that it was wrong to ask the man to go, which he did respectfully and with no complaint. His friends followed him out. It made me feel awful.
And then Paul spoke from the pulpit. Many preachers would've pretended that what had just happened hadn't happened. Paul had given apples to the congregation to share with others, just as, he stated, God had shared his word with us. In a clear voice, he said, "I want you to stand now and leave in silence. And as you walk out the door in silence, remember that God loves all of his children." The congregation rose and filed out. No one spoke a word. On one hand the silence was unsettling, because the adults all had odd looks on their faces. As an adult, I now know that look was guilt. It was the first time I understood you could lovingly admire a stranger for doing the right thing, for the right reason. The greatest sermon I ever heard was Paul's last sentence, spoken softly, without anger, but with evident disappointment. Yet my brain clung to the sound of a Scotsman saying God loved me, no matter what.
I never saw Paul again. But he made a lasting impression on what it means to be truly kind and caring and compassionate. He chose to stop for a few moments and make me feel worthy as a child. Along the way, a Scottish accent became entwined with loving kindness until they were one and the same.
I often wondered if Paul was the reason I wanted to find someone Scottish in my family tree. Was he the reason I was inexplicably drawn to the "Isle of Skye"? Had I lumped little girl memories of an emotional night onto a foreign country and tied them together with a Scottish accent?
Who knows? But I have discovered that one of my Irish ancestors originally came to Ireland from Scotland. Where in Scotland?
The Isle of Skye.